Sunday, September 14, 2008
When Jessica Stollings learned on Facebook that John McCain had named Sarah Palin as his running mate, the 26-year-old from Bristol, Tenn., took the day off and picked up some campaign yard signs. Just like that, she went from "just a voter" to a McCain evangelist.
"He's a lot more visionary than I thought," said Stollings, a blooming evangelical activist for her generation who believes God has raised up Palin "for such a time as this."
Similar excitement built on the Virginia campus of conservative Christian Patrick Henry College, where busloads of students went on a road-trip to a McCain-Palin rally that drew thousands.
The mood was darker on blogs and social networking sites that connect more center-left young evangelicals. There, McCain's choice has been greeted as a cynical political ploy, a depressing return to the culture wars and damaging to efforts to broaden the evangelical dialogue.
Polls have yet to measure the Palin Effect on younger evangelical voters, whose shifting political allegiances put the demographic in play for both major-party presidential campaigns.
But a portrait emerges through interviews with more than a dozen pastors, authors and others who either belong to that generation or track it: Conservatives are energized much like their elders, progressives are unimpressed and many undecideds are gravitating toward McCain-Palin.
"I think the jury is still out on young evangelicals," said Cameron Strang, editor of Relevant magazine, an influential publication for this group. "Both parties have the opportunity to address issues of deep concern for this voting bloc."
Strang, 32, has been courted by Democrat Barack Obama's campaign. He accepted an invitation to speak on a panel at the Democratic National Convention about the faith vote and attended Obama's acceptance speech.
Yet Strang said he's "more undecided than ever." He said he was encouraged by Democratic pledges to reduce the number of abortions, but now worries the party is using abortion as a wedge issue by running ads sharply contrasting Palin and Obama on abortion rights.
Strang said he's waiting for the Republicans to talk more about health care and the economy _ and is both intrigued and unmoved by Palin.
"It's a great story, but I don't know what's changed," he said. "She's pro-life, but we already knew the ticket was pro-life. She really doesn't broaden the agenda."
A Pew survey last fall showed under-30 white evangelicals are increasingly up for grabs politically: 40 percent identified as Republican, down 15 percent from 2005. Most who abandoned the GOP were becoming independents, not Democrats.
On the whole, evangelicals under 30 say Palin enthuses them because she's a fresh face with a compelling family story, a reputation as a reformer and a champion of conservative moral values.
"Obama has had a lot of appeal for being new, fresh, cool and bringing change," said Alex Harris, an evangelical college freshman who co-founded the online activists' group Huck's Army to support Mike Huckabee. "Palin is fresh and new, but she is also rock solid on issues like abortion. A lot of young evangelicals would have a hard time supporting Obama" for his abortion rights stance.
Palin's personal story _ including a 17-year-old daughter pregnant out of wedlock _ resonates with young evangelicals who have friends facing similar ordeals, Harris said.
Regardless of their political leanings, young evangelicals repeatedly mention the history Palin would write if elected the first female vice president. Obama's bid to become the country's first black president has struck a similar idealistic chord.
"For a lot of young evangelical women, it's exciting," said Colorado-based author Margaret Feinberg, an up-and-coming evangelical voice. "It speaks to young evangelical women who face a glass ceiling in our workplaces, but also the stained-glass ceiling of the church."
On the other side of the evangelical political spectrum, there's worry that Palin's star turn will diminish months of work Obama backers have put into wooing young evangelicals.
Doug Pagitt, pastor of Solomon's Porch in Minneapolis, said young evangelicals in his circle fear that Palin's ascendancy signals a return to "old-school divide and conquer politics" and a narrow focus on abortion politics.
"There was a feeling that an era was coming to a close," said Pagitt, a leader in the emergent church, a diverse but hard-to-define movement that draws many young and creative evangelicals. "Now with a 44-year-old woman, there could be another half a lifetime of this."
Tony Jones, another emergent church leader, said it's too early to say that. "It's only been two weeks," he said.
"Although I think Palin will energize the conservative base, I don't think the Palin pick does anything for progressive evangelicals," said Jones, who caucused for Obama. "If anything, it tarnishes McCain's once stellar reputation as an independent-minded politician."
Even pre-Palin, McCain campaign officials thought the 72-year-old Arizona senator would appeal to young evangelicals. Polls show white evangelicals under 30 are even more anti-abortion than their elders but also keenly interested in the environment and poverty.
McCain "cares about life, he cares about marriage," said Marlys Popma, the campaign's evangelical outreach director. "But he also feels the same way they do about creation care, about global poverty, that if we truly are a Judeo-Christian nation we have a responsibility."
Popma said the campaign began a young evangelical task force that includes Stephanie Vogelzang, a 23-year-old Yale Divinity School student who approached the campaign to help. So far, Vogelzang said she's blogged and spoken at forums at Yale about the GOP ticket.
Jonathan Merritt said he contacted the McCain campaign before the Republican convention and offered to arrange a "star-studded" conference call with 35 young evangelicals. But Merritt, a 26-year-old Southern Baptist pastor active on environmental issues, said he got no response.
"The McCain campaign is really out to lunch when it comes to reaching young evangelicals," said Merritt, who added that Palin's questioning of man-made global warming concerns him.
Overall, the Palin pick is swaying many undecided young evangelicals who already were warming to McCain after his confident, straightforward answers at a recent candidate forum at Saddleback church in California, said Gabe Lyons. Lyons is a Georgia-based author and founder of the Fermi Project, a collective of church leaders, entrepreneurs and artists.
Young evangelicals "aren't identifying as much with Palin's evangelicalism as with her emblematic role as everyday American _ one of us, a normal, down to earth mom, parent, school volunteer," Lyons said. "This isn't a faith response, it's a human response."
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